Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Posted on Apr 15, 2012
In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke combines the pace and setting of a Charles Dickens novel with the magic and mystery of Harry Potter or The Lord of The Rings. The result is an entertaining alternative history of 19th century England, where the scientific revolution is accompanied by the revival of English Magic.

At the heart of the English Magic revival is Mr. Norrell, England's only practical (as opposed to theoretical) magician. He is introverted, narcissistic, and believes his is the only righteous approach to magic. While claiming he is acting for the good of English Magic, he actively discourages other magicians, and hoards all the books of magic he can find.

The book begins with Mr. Norrell, and describes in mundane detail his home, habits, and opinions on magic. The first section of the book is reminiscient of Great Expectations in how the focus is on character development and world building rather than an event-driven plot. While things plod along, the anticipation grows and, just as in Great Expectations or Lord of The Rings, the reader is given the impression that it is all leading somewhere. The footnotes add to the building suspense, especially when they allude to Jonathan Strange, who has not yet been introduced to the reader in the narrative.

In the second section of the book, Jonathan Strange is introduced. His personality and his approach to magic are so different from Norrell that, even though they initially get along, one can see they will eventually be at odds on some issue.

For me, the interaction between the two main characters is the theme of the book. While Strange is progressive, Norrell is conservative. Strange is creative and innovative in his magic, and Norrell is studious and cautious. Clarke does a good job of balancing the two forces, especially in how the two magicians, despite their differences, suffer the exact same fate in the end.

Overall, I found it an enjoyable read, if a little long. My only complaint is I felt the end was quite rushed. While the opening chapters had all the excitement of an encyclopedia, it seemed so much was packed into the climax that there was not enough space given to discuss what it meant for the characters involved.

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